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13 May 2019

A million species are facing extinction

(The Mercury: Environment) Picture: A LEMUR in the forest at Andasibe-Mantadia National Park in Madagascar. Development that has led to loss of habitat, climate change, overfishing, pollution and invasive species is causing a biodiversity crisis, scientists say in a new UN report. Jason Straziuso AP Photo

DURBAN – People are putting nature in more danger now than at any other time in human history, with extinction looming over 1 million species of plants and animals. But it’s not too late to fix the problem, according to the UN’s first comprehensive report on biodiversity.

“We’ve reconfigured dramatically life on the planet,” co-chairperson anthropology Professor Eduardo Brondizio of Indiana University said.

Species loss is accelerating tens or hundreds of times faster than in the past, the report, which was released last week, said. More than half a million species on land “have insufficient habitat for long-term survival” and are likely to go extinct, many in decades, unless their habitats are restored. The oceans are no better off.

“Humanity unwittingly is attempting to throttle the living planet and humanity’s own future,” George Mason University biologist Professor Thomas Lovejoy, dubbed the “godfather of biodiversity” for his research, said.

“The biological diversity of this planet has been hammered, and this is really our last chance to address that,” Lovejoy said.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) included more than 450 researchers who used 15000 scientific reports. The report’s summary had to be approved by representatives of all 109 nations. Some nations hit harder by the losses, like small island countries, wanted more in the report.

Others, such as the US, were cautious in the language they sought, but agreed “we’re in trouble”, said Rebecca Shaw, chief scientist for the Worldwide Fund for Nature, an observer. “This is the strongest call we’ve seen for reversing the trends on the loss of nature.”

The findings were not just about saving plants and animals, but about preserving a world that was becoming harder for humans to live in, said Sir Robert Watson, the British scientist and chairperson of IPBES, who headed the report.

“We’re threatening the potential food security, water security, human health and social fabric of humanity,” he said.

It was also an economic and security issue, as countries fought over scarcer resources. The poor bore the greatest burden.

The report highlighted five ways in which people were reducing biodiversity:

Turning forests, grasslands and other areas into farms, cities and other developments. The habitat loss leaves plants and animals homeless. About three-quarters of Earth’s land, two-thirds of its oceans and 85% of crucial wetlands have been severely altered or lost, making it harder for species to survive.

Overfishing the world’s oceans. A third of the world’s fish stocks are overfished.

Permitting climate change from burning of fossil fuels, making it too hot, wet or dry for some species to survive. Almost half of the world’s land mammals and a quarter of the birds have had their habitats hit hard by global warming.

Polluting land and water. Every year, 300 to 400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents and toxic sludge are dumped into the world’s waters.

Allowing invasive species to crowd out native plants and animals.

“The key to remember is, it’s not a terminal diagnosis,” the report said.